There's something about getting a book as a gift that makes you not want to read it. Perhaps there's a faint whiff of homework about it; perhaps it's just all those daunting little black marks covering the pages. Comics are different. They are narrative in freebase form — the exact opposite of homework — and can be ingested in gulps. Give someone a big, hardcover, glossy graphic novel, and you're likely to lose them for the next hour as they gorge themselves on sweet, sweet sequential art.
THE SWEETER SIDE OF R. CRUMB | ROBERT CRUMB | NORTON | 110 PAGES | $17.95 | In the introduction to this slim, softcover book of sketches, Robert Crumb confesses his sins: as an underground cartoonist in the '60s and '70s, he says, "I vomited it all up on the page, all the black stuff that was inside me." Those raw, balls-out comics became the work he's known for. Of course, that tends to limit his audience to subterranean readers.
The Sweeter Side, R. explains, was "cooked up by my wife, Aline, as a marketing gimmick" in hopes of attracting women to buy Crumb's work. I have to say, I'm a chick, and I love Crumb's fucked-up, misogynist, anti-Semitic id-vomit. That said, the tamer drawings collected here — beautifully rendered street scenes from the South of France, pen-and-ink studies of old-time jazz musicians — reveal what a master draftsman Crumb really is.
PICTURE THIS | LYNDA BARRY | DRAWN AND QUARTERLY |204 PAGES | $29.95 | On page 22 of Lynda Barry's Picture This there's a drawing of a child wearing a parka and huddled in a fetal position, above the caption GET ME MY MOM. No explanation; it's a snapshot of a childhood misery that can be neither explained nor healed. But Barry knows that all art is, in a way, an attempt at a do-over — a reworking of some past humiliation.
Picture This is an autobiography, a meditation on art, an activity book, and an artist's notebook. Compiled of sketches, collages, original art, and found text, it features characters from Barry's older comics as well as the author herself, and her muse, the near-sighted monkey. The book explores the ways in which art gets stifled, and the ways in which we all need it desperately.
X'ED OUT | CHARLES BURNS | PANTHEON | 56 PAGES | $19.95 | Charles Burns wants to flip your shit out. The cover of his latest effort, X'ed Out, references a famous Tintin cover — but where Tintin was standing on a rocky shore staring in shock at a giant, red-and-white mushroom, Burns's unfortunate protagonist is knee-deep in debris beside a lurid green river, horrified by a sinister-looking red-and-white egg.
It seems the poor fellow has an unexplained head injury, and there's a hole in his bedroom wall that leads to a creepy alien dimension (as you'd expect). There are noseless guys eating worms that have faces; there are fetal pigs in jars, an art-chick girlfriend who goes missing, and strawberry Pop-Tarts. X'ed Out is the first chapter of a larger saga. By the end you won't know quite where Burns is going it — but you'll want to find out.